John Boyne’s best-selling and award-winning novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is the story of Bruno, a nine-year-old boy in Nazi Germany whose father has been put in charge of running Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Bruno secretly befriends a boy his own age, who lives on the other side of the fence where Jews are imprisoned in the death camp. Bruno is observant but naïve in the extreme and has only the dimmest understanding of the situation and place in which he finds himself. However, Bruno’s innocence enables him to see certain elements of truth more clearly than many of the adults around him. Most importantly, he is curious and honest and dares to ask questions about that which he does not understand. At the end of the novel, Bruno crosses under the fence to help his friend Shmuel try to find his father, who is missing. Just after Bruno says to Shmuel that he is his best friend “for life,” the two boys perish in the camp’s gas chamber.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas raises many questions that are as relevant today as they were then: Is it always right to obey? Can silence have dangerous consequences? Do we share more similarities than differences with our fellow humans? How powerful is friendship? How do our actions—or complacency— influence others?
Boyne describes his tale as a fable. He intended it to be more than a story of a single time and place. Although it is very clear when and where the story is set, he never directly mentions the Nazis, the war, the actual name of the concentration camp, or Hitler. Instead, the novel is a kind of allegory that could relate to any political dividing line, or “fence,” anywhere in the world. The book was published in 2006. Many fences have gone up and many atrocities have been committed in the decades since World War II. Boyne’s message is clear: The dangers of tyranny are ever-present and genocide could—and does—still happen in the world we live in today. We must be vigilant. We must always question what is right and speak out against that which is wrong.
There is some controversy over whether Bruno’s experience could ever have taken place and whether Bruno’s level of naïveté is truly plausible. Is it really possible that the nine-year-old son of a Nazi running a death camp would understand so little of the world around him? Although this is a worthy question, the story’s lessons rise above the specifics to convey a profound message about our shared humanity and our need to fight injustice everywhere.
It’s worth noting that students will need to be given some historical context to understand the story. The author assumes that the reader will have enough knowledge to know what Bruno is experiencing, even though Bruno doesn’t explain it. For students to be able to grasp the plot, they will need to do some additional reading about World War II, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Define what Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, the Führer, and the concentration camps were and explain how they came to be.
2. Explain the potentially dangerous consequences of silence and complacency.
3. Speak about the transformational power of friendship.
4. Discuss the potential dangers of blind obedience.
5. Understand the importance of keeping an open mind.
6. Discuss the symbolism of “fences,” and point out other fences around the world.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.
• Before chapter Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novel that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each chapter are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the lesson plan’s chapter vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each chapter that are most appropriate for them.
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novel.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Before students read through the book, point out to them the following themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed in the novel:
- Loss of innocence
- Honesty (within yourself; with others)
- The danger of secrecy and lies
- Difference and divisions (fences)
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs:
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have your students talk about how the author uses the following symbols and look for other symbols on their own as they read:
- The house in Berlin vs. the new home
- Gretel’s dolls
- The Fence
- Father’s office
- Father’s uniform
1. At one point, Mother declares, “We don’t have the luxury of thinking.” What is the danger of not thinking? Why does Mother believe that thinking is a “luxury,” and why does she feel that it is a luxury she and Bruno don’t have?
2. Early on, Bruno’s father says to him, “Do you think I would have made such a success of my life if I hadn’t learned when to argue and when to keep my mouth shut and follow orders?” How do you think Bruno’s father’s attitude toward obedience has changed at the end of the book? Is obedience always the right choice?
3. In some ways, Bruno is very naïve. In other ways, he is more clear-eyed and honest than the adults around him. What are some techniques the adults use to deny, justify, and/or accept the camp’s existence next door? How does Bruno differ from them?
4. The author describes the story as a fable. What is a fable, and why do you think he chose to call it that?
5. Bruno says many times in the early chapters that he always tries to be honest. He doesn’t say this anymore in the second half of the book. Discuss Bruno’s changing ideas about honesty.
6. When Bruno puts on the striped pajamas, he remembers his grandmother saying to him, “You wear the right outfit and you feel like the person you’re pretending to be.” Costumes and playing roles come up several times throughout the book. How might a costume or uniform enable you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do? Bruno obviously becomes the person he’s pretending to be. Who else might this apply to?
7. Consider the theme of exploration—both physical and mental. How is Bruno an explorer? How does that make him different from the rest of his family?
8. Discuss the role of friendship. How does Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship change them? What is it about...
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Chapter 1 Vocabulary
chaos: disorder, clutter, confusion
dismissively: in a way that shows a lack of interest
hesitate: pause as the result of feeling reluctant to proceed
“the Fury”: Bruno’s mispronunciation of the Führer, referring to Adolf Hitler, the German chancellor
Chapter 1 Study Questions
1. Bruno mentions that “the Fury” came for dinner. To whom is Bruno referring? Why is “the Fury” an appropriate play on words?
“Fury” is Bruno’s mispronunciation of the word “Führer,” Adolf Hitler’s title when he was Germany’s leader. Although not intended to be funny, the play on words suggests that Hitler was precisely that: an aggressive, angry, hot-headed fury of a leader.
2. What can we gather from Bruno about his family and their lifestyle?
We know that Bruno is a child. His family is fairly wealthy; we know this from the fact that they have both a maid and a butler. They live in a big house with five floors in Berlin. Manners are very important. Bruno mentions a great many rules (no shouting and no interrupting, among others), and certain rooms are off limits.
3. What does Bruno know about his father’s job? What can the reader guess is his father’s new job?
Bruno knows very little about his father’s job, but he does know that he is “a man to watch” and that “the Fury” “had big things in mind for him.” His Mother says that he will be needed for a very special job. What Bruno does not know is that his father will be running a concentration camp.
4. Why is Bruno most upset to be leaving Berlin? How is this an example of foreshadowing?
Bruno is especially upset to be leaving his three best friends behind. He knows it’s no “easy thing” to make best friends for life. The mention of friends at this early stage in the book sets up the importance of friendship, and we have a sense that finding friends in his new home will be important to him.
5. Bruno does not state explicitly that the country is at war, but he does mention details that suggest that his life has changed. What are those details? Are you surprised that he knows so little about the war?
Bruno mentions that he doesn’t like that they have to turn off all the lights at night. He mentions that the house is always full of men in uniforms. Although he understands that life is not completely normal, he seems to have very little understanding about the state of his country. He is more annoyed by the changes than scared of them. He doesn’t seem to have any sense of danger. His world is his house, his family, his friends, and his neighborhood in Berlin.
Chapter 2 Vocabulary
chalk it up: give credit for
courgette: British zucchini
desolate: lonely, empty
foreseeable: as far into the future as one can see, as far as can be predicted, as far as we know
Chapter 2 Study Questions
1. What are the two main differences between the old house and the new house?
The old house was surrounded by other nice homes in a pretty urban neighborhood. It was bigger, with five floors instead of three. Most importantly, there were lots of other boys to play with. The new house, in contrast, is smaller, isolated, unattractive, and far removed from the fun distractions of city life.
2. Bruno observes, “But there was something about the new house that made Bruno think that no one ever laughed there; that there was nothing to laugh at and nothing to be happy about.” How is this an example of foreshadowing? What does this suggest about what is to come?
Bruno senses early on that there is nothing normal or fun about this place. It is lonely and serious from the outset, and it turns out that he is right. Even though we don’t know exactly what will happen, we sense that nothing good will come of living in this place.
3. Why does Bruno have a pain in his stomach?
The world makes no sense to him. It strikes him as unfair that he has been forced to move away from the life he loved so well, but no one is offering any explanation that he can understand. No one seems to be listening to him, and he is lonely, confused, and frustrated.
4. Who do you think the skinny maids and old man are, and why do you think they act scared and speak in whispers? Does Bruno understand why they behave this way?
They are Jews who live in the camp whose job it is to help with the house. They are scared of Bruno’s father and what would happen to them if they were to do something wrong. They are skinny because they are not being fed enough in the camp. Bruno doesn’t understand any of this. He only perceives that there is something not quite normal about their behavior.
5. After Bruno finishes telling Maria what he thinks about his father’s job, the door to his parents’ bedroom opens. What is Bruno’s reaction, and what does it reveal about his relationship with his father?
Bruno worries that his father may have heard him complaining about his father’s job. He freezes and can hardly breathe because he is so nervous. It shows us that Bruno is scared of his father, who will not tolerate any disobedience.
6. What do you think Bruno sees when he looks out the window?
The concentration camp, Auschwitz.
Chapter 3 Vocabulary
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Chapter 6 Vocabulary
discard: cast aside, throw away
frenzied: frantic, excited, rushed
grate: irritate, rub the wrong way; reduce to small pieces
pension: a payment that people receive after retirement
unsettle: disturb or upset, make uncomfortable
Chapter 6 Study Questions
1. When Bruno asks Maria whether she can be happy they’ve moved to the new house, how does Maria reply? Why do you think she says that?
Maria doesn’t answer the question. Instead, she starts talking about liking the garden at the house in Berlin. Then she says that her opinion is not...
(The entire section is 2745 words.)
Chapter 12 Vocabulary
contradict: disagree by stating the opposite
criticize: point out flaws
mend: fix or repair, generally in reference to sewing
Chapter 12 Study Questions
1. What was Shmuel’s father’s profession before he came to the camp?
Shmuel’s father was a watchmaker.
2. What similarities does Bruno see in Shmuel’s story and his own?
He says that his father also wears an armband. Both he and Shmuel were forced to move.
3. Where did Shmuel have to move before coming to the camp? What did he think of it?...
(The entire section is 2500 words.)
Chapters 17-18 Vocabulary
doubtfully: with uncertainty
dread: anticipate with fear
knowledgeable: intelligent, well informed
mispronounce: say incorrectly
muster: gather, often as in courage
relieve: make less anxious, ease
senile: mentally impaired, generally refers to the elderly
summon: call forth, convene
Chapters 17-18 Study Questions
1. What does Bruno overhear? How does he feel about it?
Bruno overhears his mother arguing with his father. She wants to return to Berlin. Father says that if...
(The entire section is 1014 words.)
1. Why must Bruno’s family leave Berlin?
A. “The Fury” came to dinner and gave Bruno’s father a very important assignment that is not in Berlin.
B. Bruno’s father has done something wrong, and he is being punished.
C. Bruno’s father has been offered a very important, well-paid job on the front lines, and Bruno’s mother wants him to take it.
D. The war has come to Berlin, and it is too dangerous for them to stay there.
E. Father does not like “the Fury” and wants to get as far from him as possible.
2. What makes Bruno most unhappy...
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1. One of the great controversies of the war is how many people knew of the concentration camps’ existence and chose to remain silent. Explain why various characters in the story stay silent instead of speaking up. What are the consequences of staying silent? Of speaking up? What is the danger of everyone staying silent?
Most of the characters in the story have learned to stay quiet. They realize there is danger in voicing an honest opinion. Bruno comes across this mysterious silence many times throughout the story. His mother uses silence as a form of denial. She says, “We do not have the luxury of thinking,” and “War is not a fit subject for conversation.” She stays silent because she wants to keep...
(The entire section is 1997 words.)